A Separation: Film Review

Berlin Film Festival - Nader and Simin, A Separation - 2011
Courtesty of Berlinale 2011
Tensely involving Iranian drama with niche potential.

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi proves it is possible to tell a morally complex story, depicting the rights and wrongs of each character’s journey.

Editor's note: This film was originally reviewed at the Berlin Film Festival and published on Feb. 15, 2011 under the title Nader and Simin, A Separation.

BERLIN -- Just when it seemed impossible for Iranian filmmakers to express themselves meaningfully outside the bounds of censorship, Asghar Farhadi’s Nader and Simin, A Separation comes along to prove the contrary. Apparently simple on a narrative level yet morally, psychologically and socially complex, it succeeds in bringing Iranian society into focus for in a way few other films have done. Like About Elly, which won Farhadi the best director award at Berlin two years ago and which went on to find release in many territories, it has the potential to engage Western audiences with the right handling.

Politics are ostensibly out of the picture, though the whole premise is based on a middle-class couple’s divorce because the wife Simin (Iranian star Leila Hatami) wants to move abroad to find a better future for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). But that may not be the real reason for the separation.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi, seen in About Elly) is a decent man but a stubborn one, and he neglects his wife. Too proud to ask her to stay with him, he lets her move back to her mother’s place while he and Termeh are left to look after his aged father with Alzheimer’s disease. He hastily hires a poor woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as a daytime caretaker, who signs on without telling him she’s pregnant (or does she?). A few days later he fires her and shoves her out the door; she falls on the stairs (perhaps) and has a miscarriage. The rest of the film is a crescendo of tension as Razieh’s hot-headed, debt-ridden husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) takes Nader to court for manslaughter.

Scene after scene, new details are added that changes the moral perspective. Rather remarkably, Farhadi’s screenplay doesn’t take sides with any of the characters; on the contrary, everyone seems equally right and wrong at the same time. They are all caught in a web of pride and ego, morality and religion, money and honor.

As in his impressive third feature Fireworks Wednesday, which viewed a middle-class marriage through the eyes of a young housemaid, Farhadi attentively points out Iran’s huge class divide, colorfully referred to as the difference between “royalty and the regular people.” Simin, Nader and Termeh have middle-class jobs, apartments, cars, school and world view; they don’t raise their voice even when they fight and can easily influence the judge (played sympathetically by Babak Karimi). Razieh and Hodjat are dirt poor, live on the outskirts of the city and are much more vulnerable members of society.

And Razieh is very religious. At one point she phones an Islamic hot-line to ask whether it’s a sin for her to change the soiled pyjamas of a senile man of 80. Her refusal to swear on the Quran provides a turning point in the film.

The other ethical character is young Termeh, a gravely serious girl who learns she must downgrade her principles in a society that can only function on lying. When her moment of truth comes, she makes a choice very different from the uneducated Razieh’s.

As in all the director’s work, the cast is given top consideration and their realistic acting results in unusual depth of characterization. All five main actors stand out sharply in Mahmood Kalari’s intimate cinematography. Though the film lasts over two hours, Hayedeh Safiyari’s fast-moving editing keeps the action tensely involving from start to finish.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Babak Karimi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Kimia Hosseini, Merila Zarei
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriters: Asghar Farhadi
Executive producer: Negar Eskandarfar
Producer: Asghar Farhadi
Director of photography: Mahmood Kalari
Production designer: Keyvan Moghadam
Costumes: Keyvan Moghadam
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Sales Agent: Memento Films International
125 minutes